Category Archives: Andrea Goldsmith

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN. Truth, authenticity and personal allegiance in fact-based film.

Talk given via Zoom, at the invitation of the Film Circle at the Melbourne Lyceum Club, August 18th, 2020.

It’s a common enough happening: you and a friend have a cinema date. Knowing your friend’s interest in maths, you suggest A Beautiful Mind, the film about the great mathematician, John Nash.

Russell Crowe is in the title role. 

Your friend is appalled. ‘Crowe looks nothing like Nash. Come to that, Crowe looks nothing like any Princeton-trained mathematician.’ 

Russell Crowe, she’s suggesting, would not be convincing as an intellectual.

Your friend knows very little about Russell Crowe, but she does know a lot about mathematicians. This should have steered you to a safer topic, one in which your friend had less of an interest, less knowledge, less personal investment, but instead you stick with mathematicians and suggest they see The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, father of the computer and leader of the team that broke the enigma code at Bletchley Park. Your friend is a great admirer of Turing, she would probably say that he, more than any other single person, was instrumental in the allied victory in WW2.

So, off the two of you go to The Imitation Game.

When the film begins you are immediately engrossed, but your enjoyment is short-lived, interrupted as it is by derisive explosions that issue evermore frequently from your friend seated beside you. The interruptions become so frequent and the anger of your friend so palpable, that you suggest she leave the cinema and wait for you outside.

She refuses to leave, someone has to witness this travesty, someone who has a deep admiration and a deep sympathy for Alan Turing.

The two of you have planned a drink and early dinner at Jimmy Watson’s following the film. Given your friend’s behaviour during the film, you know what’s up ahead and really wish you could leave her and just go home. But there’s no escape. She hatedthe film and she can’t wait to tell you why. The film, she said, placed far too much emphasis on Turing’s social awkwardness, it made him out to be hardly a social being at all.

‘We, today, are so fixated on the autism scale, but it didn’t exist back then. Why pathologise the man? He was a genius. Why should we expect a genius, a person exceptional – unique – when it concerned maths and puzzles and probably a whole lot more besides, to be just like the rest of us in the food-and-drink aspects of life?’

The film, she said, was indeed a travesty of the great man. It showed little sympathy for what it was to be a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. And throughout the film his mathematical genius was completely over-shadowed by his personal and social deficiencies – your friend, of course, did not use the word ‘deficiencies’. There was nothing deficient in her view of the great Alan Turing. The film, she said, portrayed him as a hectoring, immature, insensitive idiot savant, who was often short on savant.

‘And,’ she added, ‘where was his mother? Apart from a couple of brief mentions, she plays no part in the film and yet she was solidly central in his life.’

Your friend is not happy. She seems personally affronted, she IS personally affronted: Turing is, after all, a figure in her pantheon of heroes, and the film has done him wrong.

But, you say, Benedict Cumberbatch was so convincing, he lent authenticity to the role – at least he did from your less-informed point of view.

Your friend grants that Cumberbatch showed himself to be a fine actor, one who would have done Turing proud if he didn’t have to keep proving throughout the film that he was on the autism scale.

You raise the issue of creative licence and film as entertainment, but she will have none of it: if you want to portray a life then you do justice to that life by presenting it accurately. A life is a life.

But, you continue, a film lasts 90 minutes, a life is several decades long, so of course there will be selections, and of course those selections will be made with the mode – film and entertainment – in mind.

Your friend is unmoved: if they have to skew the life out of all recognition in order to make good entertainment, then they should have chosen either a different topic or a different script-writer.

It’s a familiar scene, we’ve all been there. And it’s not just confined to film: novels that are based on true events and/or real people, the so-called faction form (which seems rather a contradictory term) or the new hybrid form, auto-fiction, are susceptible to the same conflicts, the same arguments. As are films based on novels.

Some viewers of fact-based films or films derived from novels say there should be 100% accuracy to the original events or the original novel, but not even a documentary can meet that standard. The fact is that all film selects its scenes from a much larger swag of material available, putting together a 90-minute cohesive narrative of a true story that might have spanned decades.

Film is not reality, it’s an art form, it is a creation, a different form than the life itself; film based on fact provides a certain translationof a life or historical event. And unlike the life or event, film, excluding purely educational and how-to films, must entertain. Even if a film were able to provide 100% accuracy, and given its time limits and the limits on perspective, it can’t, it has to engage the viewer as well, it has to sweep the viewer into a cinematic world and hold them there – separated from their usual life.

There is a film, in my experience that comes close to 100% accuracy, although it does not tell the whole story. That film is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Shoahis a 10-hour film about the Holocaust, shown in three parts. Made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in 1985, it consists of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, and, as well, it enters present-day sites of pivotal locations: the former concentration camp of Treblinka, the now unkempt railway tracks that carried Jews in cattle cars towards the camps. In all the ten hours there is no archival footage: no heaped dead bodies, no skeletal survivors in striped pyjamas standing at barbed wire fences. 

The film is slow and repetitive, the experience of those who speak, as well as those who can no longer speak, is imprintedon you. It is far far more powerful, in my opinion than the holocaust museums that have popped up around the world. Lanzmann’s film slows you down, it forces you to focus on singular people, singular messages; it uses certain elements of film-making to powerful and unforgettable effect, e.g. the camera looks directly into the faces of those who are being interviewed. You see every twitch and grimace; sometimes it is as if the scenes they are describing are there on the surface of their face.

Is Lanzmann’s film accurate? As far as it goes I think it is. Is it objective? No, not particularly. Is it comprehensive? Of course not: it reveals only a fraction of the factual horrors and complicities of the murder of Europe’s Jews. However, the film is, I believe, authentic, true to the events it depicts. It is convincing. But no, it does not tell the whole truth, and while it does not lie, a different filmmaker, from a different background, although still using interviews, would produce a different 10-hour film, and provide different perspectives, with different emphases to the viewer, and this film might well be equally authentic. After all, there’s much to be said and more to be understood about genocide.

TRUTH AND AUTHENTICITY

I would suggest that films and novels, too, that are based on real events must be authentic, but this does not necessarily mean truthful. To exemplify this point, one need look no further than politics. Trump lies, his lies now run into the tens of thousands, his avid supporters know he lies, they LIKE that he lies, and that he does it in such a cavalier manner is evidence, to them, of his authenticity. For Trump followers, essential to their view of him is that he is natural – he doesn’t use the same sort of performance as real politicians. Trump can drain the swamp because he’s not part of it. Every lie reinforces his renegade status. Each lie confirms his authenticity – to his supporters.

Authentic means genuine, it can also mean reliable and trustworthy; but it does not mean good. Indeed, authenticity, does not have a moral dimension at all – although common usage has tended to give it one. Trump is authentic: he is genuine (no disguises as far as his supporters are concerned); but is he reliable and trustworthy? Trump thrives on unpredictability, I would say he is predictably unpredictable; as for trustworthy, his followers absolutely trust him, even when they know he is lying. They trust him to be their Trump.

To return then to film based on real events, and the notions of truth and authenticity, what to make of a film like The Favourite? This film is set in the time of Queen Anne and it focuses on the well-documented relationship between the queen, her chief lady-in-waiting, Sarah the first Duchess of Marlborough, and the younger woman, Abigail, who usurps Sarah as Anne’s favourite. It was a bit of a romp this film, even farcical at times; Queen Anne’s large weight was a target, everyone’s unscrupulousness was on view, only Godolphin, in charge of treasury, came off unscathed. 

As it happens my oldest friend from school days, Dr Frances Harris, is a world-renowned authority on the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Her life of Sarah, A PASSION FOR GOVERNMENT, is at the forefront of works documenting this period and the court. I thought Frances would hate The Favourite. I thought she would judge it to be a wrongful portrayal not only of the main players, but of the times themselves.

How wrong I was. I will let Frances speak for herself:

Everyone thought I’d hate The Favourite, but I loved it; actually even before I saw it, which was the first day it was released, having seen the poster, which I now have in my study: a collage of the three main characters, the queen largest, Sarah in trans riding-kit, sitting firmly on her knee and Abigail mutinously on the floor with her lip and her legs stuck out like a discarded doll.….That image, by itself, managed to contain a great deal of truth: i.e. that the queen, pitiable and old and disabled as she was, was the most powerful of the three and determined the status of the other two; could take them up and put them down as she chose, like toys. The fantastic central performance of Olivia Colman helped a lot. Though the film made no attempt at strict historical accuracy, it did get a number of revealing things right which historians don’t usually bother to mention: that Abigail Masham’s husband was actually a toy-boy several years younger than herself, for example; or Sarah saying something like: yes I’m bossy and disrespectful and impossible, but you know I’m also rather gorgeous. I think it’s best seen as a kind of extended Gillray cartoon about the gossip and misrepresentation that always surrounded the queen, that she was too much under the influence of her favourites — an important constitutional issue. Though – as an aside – the favourites didn’t find her easily influenced. 

(Gillray – 1756-1815, probably the greatest caricaturists of all time.)

What Frances is saying here is that the film was authentic, although not entirely, or even mostly truthful. It was correct in terms of the TONE AND SENSIBILITY of the times, as well as GENERAL BEHAVIOURS at court, e.g. who was in and who was out, and the excellent performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne was crucial to the strength of the film.

FORM AND CONTENT

Back in the halcyon days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival there was always a lavish festival dinner. One year Faye Weldon happened to be the guest speaker. Some years earlier she had published The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. This novel was typical Weldon: witty, wicked and wise. The BBC made a marvellous mini-series of it with Miriam Margoles in the title role, perfectly cast, with Patricia Hodge also perfectly cast. Some years later, the Americans, wanting to hop on to a successful bandwagon, did as they always do, and remade the film – Americanised it – as if the American viewing public wouldn’t understood and/or appreciate the British version. It was a shocker, all the wit and wisdom was erased to be replaced by heavy-handed humour and plain bloody nonsense, and the cast – Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl in the one bad role of her stellar career) – just didn’t convince.

At the festival dinner, Weldon gave an excellent speech then invited questions. Someone asked what she thought about the American version of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. Weldon paused – such an eloquent pause it was – and then with an understated wry smile, replied: a book is a book and a film is a film. (I vaguely remember she also added something about a pleasant trip to the bank.)

She is, of course correct. Novels and films are very different forms indeed. A novel can reveal the inner lives of characters; a novel can show why character X did such and such, it can shift the point of view so we can see the effects of character X’s actions on characters Y and Z. The novel excels with interior lives. 

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW is well-known to novelists.

In The Memory Trap, I have two characters who behave badly, even brutally – Elliot the biographer and the pianist Ramsay. I did not want them to be ‘baddies’, nor did I want them to alienate reader sympathy, so I gave both of them the point of view at various times in the novel, so a reader can understand why they behave as they do. By giving them the point of view, the reader can get under their skin. 

But point of view is not the only powerful tool in the novelist’s toolbox.

As a novelist, if I want to suggest a particular emotion in a scene, I look to certain parts of speech, certain grammatical constructions, I shorten or lengthen sentences depending on the emotion I want to convey. 

A novelist uses many techniques like these to convey certain information for certain effect, and this in turn shapes reader response.

While the novelist looks to grammar and sentence length, to metaphor and verbs, to convey emotion, the film maker has music and camera angles and close-ups – these, too, shape viewer response.

To take an example: there’s an argument happening between two characters. Quite a different effect is created if the camera takes a wide view and shoots both players in the one frame, as against the camera shifting from one face to the other, one speaker to the other. The camera angle shapes viewer response, most particularly their emotional response, and so does the background music.

At times this sort of manipulation can be infuriating: when the camera homes in on one character and you want to see what another character is doing, or how they are responding. It can be very frustrating. And similarly suddenly the music ramps up the tension, something bad is about to happen, but you’d prefer NOT to have the warning. (Basically you are saying my journey with this film is not what the director had planned for me.)

TIME AND IMAGINATIVE SPACE. 

With a novel you can read a page, and then put the book down and ponder what you’ve read. You can bring in memory and experience and other books, you can consider moral possibilities and ethical dilemmas; when you read a book, you add to it as you go along. YOU add to it. And when you read you go at your own pace – the novelist’s persuasive tools notwithstanding. 

With the various streaming services, with so much film now being consumed in the home, we could watch in the same way as we read – but we don’t. The film nearly always sets the pace, and if you don’t like it, you usually throw the film over and search for something else.

The imaginative space is different for film than for a book. Sure we can – and do – reflect on a film once it is over, but it is rarely to the same extent to the thoughts and analysis we give to a book as we are reading. There is, I am suggesting, more of a reader in a book, than a viewer in a film.

Again – this suggests that a film can never accurately replicate a book because our response is so different for the two forms. (Although if it’s replication one is wanting, exactly the same information, why bother with the film at all?)

PERSONAL ALLEGIANCE (STAKEHOLDER) AND CINEMATIC ENTERTAINMENT

Consider all those films set in ancient or medieval times: SpartacusTroyGladiator(a much better role for Russell Crowe), Joan of Arc, The Agony and the EcstasyBeloved Infidel. I am sure I’m not alone in admitting that much of my exposure to history came through film and novels. It never bothered me that these works weren’t absolutely accurate, they gave me, at the very least, the bare bones, and if I wanted to know more then I went to the library (today, people would probably go to Wikipedia).

But when a film draws on something I know about, when I have a personal allegiance to the material, a stake in it, then my response is very different. (Like my friend with the Alan Turing film.)

In 1997, an Italian film directed by and starring the comedian Roberto Benigni was released. It was called Life is Beautiful. This was a feel-good film set in Auschwitz, and I hated it. It was intended to be a film about the power of the human spirit, and it might have been, but at the same time it trashed the horrors of Auschwitz, obliterating all the inhumanities that went on there as it was trying to show one father’s humanity. Not only did it not reveal anything new or different about how Auschwitz, it actually hid the facts. Anyone seeing that film with only a little knowledge of the death camps would have come out feeling quite jolly and wondering what the Jews were complaining about.

I, on the other hand, being possessed of detailed knowledge of Auschwitz, I, having known survivors who lost all their family in Auschwitz, I, having trod, literally, that fraught ground, was appalled. I was also personally affronted. A film that had been authentic enough to some people was an affront to history and to me. This film won praise and prizes, this film clearly worked cinematically but it did not work for me – nor did it work for historical truth.

Another example of when personal allegiance affected my response to a film that was considered cinematically successful, was Iris. I started reading Iris Murdoch as a teenager, and even though she’s been dead nearly 20 years, I still read her today. Iris is one of my life’s companions. I have read several memoirs about her, and biographies too. I know Iris, and when she died, I was asked to write about her, and my long engagement with her work. (Article below, published in The Weekend Australian, April 26-27, 2003.)

I hated the books written by her husband John Bayley after her death, so when the film IRIS was produced, based on Bayley’s memoir of the same name, I should have been warned off, I should have had more sense than to see it. The best I can say about the experience is that the session my partner and I went to was largely empty. I cried hysterically through much of the film, I, a woman who prides herself on being emotionally restrained, was a blubbering mess. So much emphasis was placed on the poor old dear with dementia, while the great philosopher that Iris Murdoch was, warranted hardly a mention, similarly her novels – all 24 of them. Instead we see her lying in bed watching ‘Teletubbies’. It was dreadful, it was cruel, it was distressing.

Others liked the film, considered it a sensitive film about dementia. But it wasn’t about dementia, I wanted to shout, it was supposed to be about Iris Murdoch. They were no wiser about the great Iris Murdoch at its conclusion – I can guarantee that.

So a film can lack authenticity and truth and still be considered a successful film. Such films have a cinematic logic to them, the narrative holds together, the film is, in short, entertaining – or informative about dementia – although it clearly was not for me given my personal stake in Dame Iris Murdoch.

Truth, accuracy, authenticity. Story-telling, narrative coherence, entertainment. Values, attitudes, allegiances. All these features are relevant: before the lights go down.

PANDEMIC PASTIMES

 

My favourite letter is /p/. It’s not the sound – a voiceless plosive has little to recommend it over

A page of /p/ in personal dictionary.

the musical nasal of an /m/, or the remarkable laterals of /r/ and /l/ – it’s that the most interesting words start with /p/, more than any other letter. I’ve not arrived at this conclusion through research or experimentation, rather it is a matter of experience, backed up by the personal dictionary that I have compiled over many decades. /p/ fills more pages and sparks more interest than any other letter.

In these strange times of the corona virus pandemic, the peccadilloes and proclivities that have sustained me are poetry and prose, paintings and politics. And music, of course, the piano and preludes, but much more than these.

This post is not about my favourite letter, indeed, only in unique times such as these, would I indulge my fondness for /p/; nor is this post my usual sort of article. Rather I want to let you know about a new pandemic pastime of mine.

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In 1912, in the city of Melbourne, a group of women established a club for women. They called it The Lyceum Club after the London Lyceum which had been formed eight years earlier. Both then and now ‘the Club is for women interested in the arts, the professions, science, contemporary issues and the pursuit of lifelong learning in an apolitical, non-sectarian environment.’ I’d not heard of this club until a few months ago, when I was invited to be the Lyceum’s 2020 artist-in-residence.

I accepted the invitation and, in conjunction with several of the Lyceum Circles* (clubs), I planned a program of lectures and interviews and forums.

Then came the lockdown.

The Lyceum Club events quickly shifted on-line, including a Youtube channel so the artist-in-residence program could go ahead. The first lecture, ‘Imagination and Creativity in the Digital Age’, is currently available. In mid-May, a second talk will be recorded on ‘Truth in Fiction’.

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ But can we trust him? Should we trust him? And if it were true, does it enhance our reading of Emma Bovary? These issues will be explored with reference to a range of writers. The talk will include a consideration of cultural appropriation and faked biography through the cases of Helen Demidenko, Heather Morris and Bruce Pascoe.

A third talk on memoir will appear on the Youtube channel in June.

These past several weeks I have been reading a lot of poetry. Poetry, with its intensity and concision, is perfect for these times. It provides illumination and insight, it provides distraction from immediate anxieties, and it does all this in a few lines. It suddenly occurred to me: have-channel-record-poetry. So I have. Short readings of favourite poems are also there on the Youtube channel.

The Youtube channel is available to anyone interested. So, if you are wanting a poetry fix, or you’re interested in the lectures here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

And for more poetry the Australian Book Review has made a podcast of Poetry in Troubled Times.

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/podcast/760-the-abr-podcast/6472-the-abr-podcast-more-poetry-for-troubled-times-13

When this is over, I will resume my articles on this website, but until then I’ll be writing and recording for Youtube. But please do come along for the duration.

 

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*There are dozens of these circles including the Latin Circle, the Psychology Circle, 15+ reading circles, Italian and Greek Circles, gardening and chess, film and finance – a remarkable range.

 

INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR

I’m at the age when people write memoirs.

I have plenty of memorable events to account: I never got the hang of childhood, so childhood itself was made strange; I have a hyphenated identity as a Jewish Australian; I have loved men and I’ve loved women; as a novelist I have a public life, and in that life I meet interesting people, many of whom I count as friends; my partner, Dorothy Porter, was one of Australia’s best-known poets. There is much to fill a memoir, yet I have never been tempted – and that remains the case.

Three recent events have brought me to a new consideration. I am currently reading Irving Yalom’s Staring at the Sun(2008). In this book Yalom, an American psychiatrist now in his late eighties, explores the commonly held fear of death – not a fear I share, incidentally. Irving Yalom is my favourite psychiatrist. He is a humanist, an intellectual, a man of profound erudition and empathy (how rare and wonderful to link those two qualities), a writer of rich and elegant prose. The first half of Staring at the Sunis written in his usual style, in which he draws on his work with patients to explore and understand an essential aspect of the human condition, in this case the extent and variety of death fears; he shows how these fears emerge in therapy and how they are resolved. Along the way he draws on writers and thinkers including Tolstoy, Epicurus and Nietzsche.

The second half of the book, which I have only just begun, documents his own personal story. My reaction was immediate: why a specific section on you, when you emerge as actor and thinker and compassionate therapist in all the stories you tell of your patients? In short, why a memoir when I have a strong sense of Yalom through his books.

The second event was the funeral of the renowned French horn player, Barry Tuckwell. There were wonderful speeches, warm and humorous and revealing of Barry’s life. And there was music, lots of music, including recordings of Barry himself. In ways I can’t explain (but hope to do so in my next novel), Barry’s music revealed more of the man, or rather, had a more profound effect on me than the stories told of his life.

The third event was the follow-up to a dinner with a relatively new friend. We were talking about our adolescent reading, the authors we read and the effect they had. He seemed surprised at mine: all of Leon Uris, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Somerset Maugham, and many many Iris Murdochs. I explained that I stopped reading books specifically written for children at quite a young age (of course back then, children read the likes of Dickens and Austen and the Brontës). I read the classics, but I also read the contemporary novels I found on my mother’s bookshelf. I explained how I would choose a book and then ask my mother whether she would recommend it; I added that some of these books had got me – a good girl – into trouble at school. I told my friend that I’d written about this, and said I’d send some pieces along to him. (I sent him ‘Conversing with Famous Dead People’, posted under ‘imagination’, and the lecture I gave to the National Library of Australia, ‘Private Pleasures and Public Exposure: the Creative Imagination in the Digital Age’, posted under published essays.)

This morning I scrolled through the articles on this website, and it occurred to me as I saw pieces about travel, about books read, about ideas; and articles about biography, about letters, about starting a novel, that writings like these reveal a huge amount about me, more and of greater variety than any memoir – just like Yalom. A memoir is selective, the writer tells only what they want. They have a specific purpose in writing the memoir and the content is selected with that purpose in mind. These articles however, are propelled by curiosity, and by a belief in the power of language and most particularly written language to reveal, to communicate, to connect.

I do delight in the way new ideas appear and develop. Three separate events occurred, and they percolated together and linked in with memory and goodness knows what other richnesses of mind, and suddenly there’s a new insight, a new idea.

A thought is now emerging: that I will select a number of these pieces, along with some of my long essays and collect them together under the title: Instead of a Memoir. Just a thought at the moment, but if it gathers traction I might very well act on it.

THE SIMULTANEOUS TIME ZONES OF LIFE

Recently I was in London. I am familiar with the city, indeed, next to Melbourne, London is the city I know best. I first visited as a 21-year-old and have returned perhaps a dozen times since, sometimes staying just week or two, other times for months.

On that first visit, in 1972, the King’s Road was still the King’s Road, indeed, the sixties, most of which I’d been too young to explore fully, were still very apparent in clothes, in music, in a loud fuck-you attitude to traditional institutions, in a ‘new left’ that still had a presence. Of course, within a couple of years, the prevailing belief of the 1960s that the personal was political would metamorphose into the personal growth and development movement. Indeed, by 1975, politics had almost entirely disappeared, and what Tom Wolfe termed the ‘Me Decade’ was in full swing. Instead of storming the barricades of the past and of privilege, ‘realising one’s potential’, ‘finding the real me’, ‘remodelling the self’ had become the raison d’être of a meaningful life. This trend was described as ‘the new alchemical dream’ and the ‘sweetest and vainest of pastimes’ by Tom Wolfe in his essay ‘The Me Decade’ – which still reads well, more than forty years on.

I lived in London for several months that first time. The plan had actually been to stay indefinitely, but a boyfriend in Melbourne and a lack of confidence in my own capacities brought me home within a year. But still I managed to cover a lot of ground. I walked the streets of London, I walked for hours, for days, and I walked alone. And I read. I read the existentialists finding a vocabulary for my own angst, I read books on the sociology of alienation, I read the soul-breakers of poetry, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (my brothers, my brothers) and I read Virago’s recently discovered feminists as well as George Eliot and Edith Wharton and many others.

It was a very solitary time. There was no one to disturb my reverie and no one on whom to test my thoughts. As I walked the London streets, my mind was alive: to the books I was reading, the people and scenes around me, as well as memories, longings and imaginings. It all mingled together, hard to separate the facts from fiction and both from desire. Not that I minded, I was never lonely in a George Eliot novel, I was never clumsy or misunderstood when a part of alienated youth, I was never shy or reticent in my imaginings.

On my latest trip, unlike the several that had preceded it, impressions from my first visit to London surfaced with particular vividness. In fact, there were times when I felt as if I were simultaneously living in different time zones, that now was also then, and, given my awareness and knowledge of this experience, much of the time in between. There were two factors that marked this trip as different: the first was a book – Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland – the second, an exhibition about the 1960s that was showing at the V&A.

Back in the old days before e-books and electronic readers, books would take up a good portion of my suitcase when I travelled. While I will always prefer reading a paper book to a screen, these days I travel with my iPad loaded up with both new and old titles (I never leave home, for example, without the complete works of Jane Austen), I travel with the equivalent of several suitcases of weightless books. But I was in London and staying around the corner from Daunts, and I simply could not resist.

For booklovers who don’t know Daunt Books in Marylebone put it on your list if you aredaunt-books-marylebone-high-st-london going to London. In the meantime, visit the Daunt Books website and take the virtual tour through this lovely Edwardian bookshop (make sure to check out all three floors). I found an essay by Brodsky on Venice that I’d not known about before, and a fat family memoir by Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB; I picked up a new Justin Cartwright, Lionheart, and Julian Barnes’s first novel, one of the few books of his I’d not read.

From the first page of Metroland, indeed, the first sentence I was hooked. ‘There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery’ the novel begins. How could I not continue? Is there a rule about using binoculars, I wondered. And plunged ahead.

Metroland comes in a lovely edition, a ‘special archive edition’ according to the publishers (Vintage). It’s a paperback with folding flaps and a repeating graphic of stylized suburban houses on front and back, and inside both covers there’s a similar repeating graphic in a hot orange.

metroland-cover

 

 

metroland-inside-cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book begins in 1963 in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan line, when the narrator, Christopher, and his best friend Toni are 16 years old. Christopher and Toni are intellectuals, they’ve read books their fellow students have never even heard of, they pepper their conversation with French and they fancy themselves as modern-day flâneurs. And they assume that distanced, critical, somewhat superior stance of alienated youth. They are adamantly not of Metroland and will escape as soon as they can. The book is laugh-aloud funny at times, it is also very knowing.

For almost half the book the narrative stays with the boys in Metroland before shifting, along with Christopher, to Paris in 1968 – yes, that pivotal year, although unfortunately the upheavals (or, as Christopher refers to them in meaningful italics, les événements) seem to have passed him by. In the third section of the book the narrative shifts back to Metroland. Now it is 1977 and Christopher is a husband and father; he is far wiser and far happier (with neither shame not embarrassment) than his younger self.

I was captivated by the entire book, but it was the first section, the youth section, that had the major impact. I recognised those boys, not in every respect and certainly not in their fixation on sex, but in their reading and other intellectual pursuits and their sense of being different from their peers. (I wonder if all intellectual children of the second half of the 1900s gravitated to the same books.) Because there were two of them, they managed to legitimate the other and they often made light and merry of their difference. In my own case, I too met a like-minded girl in early adolescence. It’s much harder if you are alone. So I was infusing Metroland with my own experience, or Metroland was infusing my memories and I read and read and did not want the book to finish.

During this time I visited the 1960s exhibition at the V&A. The clothes, the bands, the books, the films and TV, the posters and badges, the personalities, how very familiar they all were. Best of all was a large room where a movie of Woodstock was playing, huge images covering the walls and cushions cast across the floor, and there I sat rocking along to the familiar music, gazing at those lovely familiar figures.

This entire exhibition was a banquet in identifying with the familiar. As I wandered the exhibition, I saw that most of the other on-lookers were around my age, and I saw the smiles on their faces, the pleasure of recognition, as they peered at the exhibits. I wasn’t the only one enjoying this trip to the past.

But was it the past? I was in the now, I was in the present. What I was recalling did not make me forget where I was, the pull of the past did not obliterate the present. Indeed, it was the past coming into the present, like red wine into water, a lovely mingling that softened and pleasured the present. (This is quite opposed to nostalgia, a deluded state that has you longing for a lost past.) This past was enriching the present, and the present was making more sense of the past. Simultaneous and merging time zones, I decided.

Often when explaining memory, metaphors from archaeology are evoked. So, for example, we read of the strata of time, the bedrock of events. These particular metaphorical associations are romantic in a nineteenth century type of way, but they are not accurate. The memories that burst upon us do so in a single moment, they are not sequential; simultaneously they operate together with one another and with current events. There’s nothing linear or strata’d about it.

Our sense of time is that it flows inexorably forward while now, this moment, does not. Now, this moment, if you could only hold on to it, is stationary. Now is what we experience. But for it to become experience, something reflected on, something that can be drawn upon in the future, it is no longer now, but rather it becomes part of our stock of knowledge (surely, an aspect of memory), a sort of personal and portable library.

I was learning more about the past, more about now with the sixties of Metroland, the V&A exhibition, and I actually made my way down to King’s Road, the first time in years. The days passed as if inside a movie. Movies, like novels, toy with time, years can pass in a few pages, or from one scene to the next. We might see in a flick of hair or perhaps a facial grimace alerting us that a character has remembered something, in a novel we can actually know the character’s thoughts. We are of this time and we are of all our time. Each memory affects many that have gone before and will itself be affected by many that come afterwards. And all those memories are still active as we make our way through the often tumultuous currents of today.

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

AS QUIET AS PAPER

It was 1933, and Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam had finally been given a flat of their own, in Furmanov Lane, Moscow. Boris Pasternak came to visit. As he was leaving he said that now Mandelstam had a flat he would be able to write poetry. The remark was passed casually, without forethought. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam in her magnificent memoir, Hope Against Hope, her husband was furious: no true poet, he believed, would be reliant on physical comforts to work.

In response to Pasternak’s remark, Mandelstam wrote a poem that begins: The apartment is quiet as paper. There’s a double irony to this line. Mandelstam composed in his head. When it came to writing his poems down, he needed nothing more than a few minutes, paper, pen and a scrap of bench; mostly the actual writing down was done by his wife, or occasionally someone else. An apartment as quiet as paper: Those words are steeped in threats: with the ubiquity of informers, all walls had finely attuned ears: and in those terrible times, no paper was ever silent or safe.

Mandelstam’s famous poem against Stalin was never written down, it was recited to a small group of friends in May 1934. This poem, now commonly known as his Epigram On Stalin, sent Mandelstam into exile and helped shape his death at a relatively young age. No paper in Stalin’s Russia was silent, but even if it were, the silence of paper is not the silence of poetry.

The Stalinist years were dangerous times, mine are not, and yet these past couple of months as I’ve been sorting through papers and manuscripts to send to a newly-established Porter-Goldsmith archive at the National Library of Australia in Canberra that line of Mandelstam’s, The apartment is quiet as paper, has reverberated in my mind.

Both Dorothy and I were life-long preservers of paper. It has been a mammoth task this finding, reading, sifting, and cataloguing our stuff. I thought I knew what lay in the cupboards, in boxes, piled in files, on shelves, slipped between the pages of books, the books themselves, I thought I knew because in these past years since Dot’s death, I have, intermittently, dipped into the paper troves and revisited our past. But I knew very little. Casual, spontaneous riffling of a box or a folder of notes as an aide to immersing yourself in a lost life has as little to do with the systematic ordering of the stuff – or bumf, to use one of Dot’s favourite terms – which has characterised these past couple of months

The house is littered with paper. On tables and shelves and scattered across the floor are sheets of manuscript, slabs of book drafts, stacks of magazines, folders of pamphlets and newspaper cuttings; there are letters, cards, notebooks, pocket diaries, and in the cavity beneath the stairs, a jagged and increasing mound of brown archive boxes with the NLA’s name and address on the top. And emanating from it all is the smudged, enveloping silence common to books and paper. When visitors enter this house of paper, I stand and watch them. They must hear it, they must hear the subterranean jangling and shuddering of all this human geology.

Archive boxes

Dot threw nothing out, not when it came to paper. Ancient, unused cab charges have been a regular discovery in her old files. When The Eternity Man, the chamber opera Dot wrote with the composer Jonathan Mills, played at the Opera House one Sydney Festival, Dot went to every performance – there were several – and saved every single ticket from those performances. She kept every letter/email pertaining to a gig, even that last one of a series that carried a ‘thankyou’ and ‘I’ll see you soon’. Every advertisement – either for a gig or for one of her books – was shoved into an appropriately named and dated file. And I mean shoved. Dot was all thumbs when it came to folding things – paper or clothes. As for wielding a pair of scissors around a square advertisement, it was an insurmountable challenge.

Many years ago I started using coloured string folders to hold drafts of my novels in progress. I would choose a different colour per book – green for Reunion, pink for The Memory Trap, blue for The Prosperous Thief. The stack of finished drafts would grow in a neat, ordered pile, a vague assertion of control in a process shot through with uncertainty. I suggested that Dot use the string folders too, I even bought the first bundle for her, so her later manuscripts are a little tidier than the earlier ones. But a string folder can only do so much when it comes to a neat bundle, and Dot would pile in drafts with pages non-aligned – a kind of origami nightmare, I found myself thinking as I was straightening up one manuscript a couple of weeks ago.

So much preserved paper has yielded many treasures. Such delight in coming across a good unpublished poem with her fresh, familiar, vibrant voice speaking to me. Her death is irrelevant to the pleasure I derive from these poems; indeed, the only area of my life that has remained untouched by her death is her work. And I’ve found personal bits and pieces, events we shared but I’d forgotten, holidays and weekends away, happenings which at the time I might have glimpsed, but with the papers she kept, now bring a deeper insight and a more poignant punch.

I spent a couple of hours going through two large cartons of my own. I have lugged these cartons from house to house over a period of four decades. Like Dot, I kept everything. Notes and cards from primary school friends, from teachers, from anyone who bothered to notice me and address me on paper are stacked in an old shoe box, itself in the bottom of one of the cartons. Purple and gold crepe streamers kept from not one but two Wesley school dances have been preserved in neat rolls. Invitations to birthday parties, letters from school-friends. I’ve kept early scribblings, (how good, I wonder wryly, do early scribblings need to be before they’re called ‘juvenilia’?), faded photos of friends whose names I’ve forgotten. Like Dot, I have thrown nothing out, I’ve just stored the stuff more tidily than she did. Although not when it concerns dating and labelling. Dot was a stickler for completeness. Everything of hers has been dated and located. So, for example, every draft of every poem carries the date of its composition and the name of the house, the hotel, the coffee shop and/or suburb or city in which the writing occurred.

Driven by hopes for posterity, there are writers who keep everything (I’ve even heard about writers who spend the fallow months between books copying out manuscripts by hand in order to enhance the value of their papers). But not for me and nor, I believe, was this the case for Dot. I started stockpiling my life long before I knew what my future would hold. Yes, I knew I wanted to be a novelist from my earliest years, but this was a secret desire, more in the way of a fantasy to make the childhood years more bearable. I had no thought of being a writer as I carefully stashed away those invitations and notes and jottings. And I expect it was much the same for Dot.

Bumf

I wonder now if there is something about paper and the ephemeral nature of imaginative work that has we writers hoarding paper even before we know what our future will bring. Prior to our current era of on-line living where anything and everything is preserved (and made public), perhaps writers in pre-digital times announced themselves in primary school because of the paper they stashed away. Perhaps this hoarding, revealing as it does a value, even a reverence directed specifically to paper and the written word, used to separate the future writers from the future musicians and accountants and plumbers. And it’s not just the paper itself, but what it symbolises in terms of memory. After all, these papers and keepsakes are mementoes – monuments and records – and memory is the fiction writer’s stock in trade. The novelist creates characters, s/he gives them childhoods and adolescences, families and lovers; the novelist creates narratives out of how the past shapes a character’s life in the present and on into the future.

I work slowly in the silent house. Occasionally I’ll hear an explosion, a cry of delight coming from me as I find a never-before-seen good poem. I’ll read such poems aloud, just as I used to when Dot would hand me a draft of a new poem. I would read it silently at first, then if it was very good or if there was a bit of a clunk, I’d read it aloud to her. Listen, I used to say, listen to me read it. And she would sit on the couch, her head cocked to one side in that characteristic listening pose of hers while I read.

You need quietness and stillness, you need background silence to hear voices. You need silence for memories, ideas, the past and the future to break through the surface of consciousness. The silence of paper: there is nothing richer, nothing more vibrant. Not even life itself.